Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Are Skyscrapers Evil?

Following my post with pics of current day Shanghai versus the Shanghai of 1990, I was surprised to find some comments that were anti-skyscraper.

It appears that some of this anti-skyscraper view is the result of analysis done by Mark Thornton that indicates a skyscraper boom generally forecasts an on-coming bust.

But being anti-skyscraper, because of the Thornton analysis, is really throwing out the baby with the bath water. Thornton clearly states that the skyscraper boom tends to signal a bust because the boom period is the period when the central bank distorts money flows toward the capital goods sector, and a skyscraper is certainly a capital good. Here's Thornton:

The Austrian theory is based on the economics of the capital structure and the distinction between true interest-rate signals which generate economic development and false interest-rate signals which generate business cycles. Understanding the giant skyscraper as a manifestation of the business cycle and thus understanding how price- and interest-rate signals can distort the structure of production in the economy into bad investments and improperly allocated labor might go a long way toward improving economists' understanding of business cycles and their cures.[19] Unfortunately, the theory is blind in the sense that it offers no way of knowing if the actual rate of interest is above or below the so-called natural rate and therefore it offers little in the way of exact prediction. It should be clear that despite its good record of predictions, the skyscraper index is not recommended as a remedy for this deficiency, but simply as a good illustration of the strengths of the Austrian theory of the business cycle.

There is nothing that Thornton says that should be interpreted that skyscrapers, in and of themselves, are evil, anymore than such should be done about other sectorss in which direction the Fed distorts money flows. The Fed distorts flows into, for example, the stock market and housing market. This doesn't mean the stock market or the housing market are evil. In fact, capital is a good thing (which is where the Fed directs its money flows). We wouldn't have the civilization we have now without capital. It is, however, very dangerous to distort money flows the way the Fed does, even when it is into the capital market because the markets are always trying to correct the distortions. But capital on its own, not money created by the Fed, is a good thing, when it flows into stocks, housing or skyscrapers.

Thus, the Shanghai skyline of 2010 should not be viewed as evil. There is likely to have been some skyscrapers built because of Chinese central bank money printing, but some would have gone up even without the money printing. Further, it took freedom and business planning to put up the skyscrapers that didn't exist in 1990. Without that freedom, the Chinese central bank money printing would have gone on, but with a much more severe price inflation and little to show for it in terms of real goods. The reasons behind the Chinese skyline aren't 100% libertarian, without freedom from central bank monetary intervention, but a China without a major skyline in a city such as Shanghai would be an indication of a much worse overall situation for the people of China. As one commenter put it:
It is a strange aesthetic that likes a more modest city "for" the people of the PRC. Just remember that in 1990 GDP was probably less than New York and probably many thousands of citizens died every day for want of about ninety five cents worth of antibiotics. There was no money, manufacturing system, distribution system, trained doctors, etc.; for the vast majority of the population it was subsistence agriculture   

Bottom line: That skyline looks real beautiful to me. It indicates progress, increasing freedom and a rising standard of living.


  1. Nothing against skyscrapers, and not to detract at all from the market reforms that have brought real prosperity to the people of Shanghai, but what you see in that bottom photo is not just the result of economic freedom and a little central banking-induced distortion, but of outright central planning. Yes, Shanghai has been transformed by economic reforms. But in the early/mid-90s, Beijing also decided to make that city into a modern-day Potemkin village, and funded much of the massive development of Pudong, including some of the big shiny skyscrapers in the photo. The government also unceremoniously demolished the neighborhoods of Pudong, forcing residents out of their homes. Not exactly the invisible hand at work there.

    Bottom line: Looks can be deceiving.

  2. I second Bretigne...
    and Thornton's thesis isn't new..

    Someone's has written a book about how every skyscraper has been the result of a bubble in building..

  3. And here's a nice graph of skyscraper construction:

  4. China will not set a new height record anytime soon, but the overall size of some of their projects spells T-R-O-U-B-U-B-B-L-E!

    Mark Thornton

  5. I am disturbed by the pictures because these changes are an effect of the corrupt global ponziconomy and all it's rigged imbalances.